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Wednesday 22 October 2014

The Mary of 'Testament' is not at ease with the finer points of theology

Published 01/10/2013 | 05:34

Colm Toibin.

SO, what is all the fuss about? 'The Testament of Mary' is a work of very little physical substance. At 30,000 words, a mere 104 pages long, in appearance it could be a children's book. With its large type, it barely takes three hours to complete from start to finish. 'The Testament of Mary' does not qualify as heavyweight fiction. No door stop here.

So, what is all the fuss about? 'The Testament of Mary' is a work of very little physical substance. At 30,000 words, a mere 104 pages long, in appearance it could be a children's book. With its large type, it barely takes three hours to complete from start to finish. 'The Testament of Mary' does not qualify as heavyweight fiction. No door stop here.

Still Colm Tóibín's slim work is in contention for the meatiest annual literary award of all – the Man Booker prize which will be awarded next week at a gala ball in London.

The man from Parnell Avenue in Enniscorthy, lately resident at Ballyconnigar in Blackwater, has certainly made the world of letters sit up and take notice.

So, what is all the fuss about? Tóibín has been heard to joke that a novella is a novel no-one reads. The suspicion is that he did not expect all the attention which his little slice of light reading has generated. The marketing of 'Testament' has gradually morphed from low-key promotion of a novella only dedicated fans will open to trumpeting a novel which is flying in large numbers off the bookshop shelves.

With those bookshops dropping the price of the paperback version below a tenner, punters have little to lose in responding to the hype. The County Wexford writer has a serious hit on his hands – not bad for a work which is a profitable exercise in re-cycling, having first seen the light of day as a play.

The theatrical associations have done 'Testament' no harm at all. Fiona Shaw – Aunt Petunia in the 'Harry Potter' films – took the part of Mary when the stage version was presented at the Walter Kerr theatre on Broadway. And then along comes multi-Oscar winning Meryl Streep to do the reading on the audio book. Such big name associations provide valuable publicity and street cred.

So, what is all the fuss about? This is not the first time Colm Tóibín has produced a work with a harassed woman as the principal character. 'Brooklyn' also made it into the bestseller charts, telling the story of fictional shop assistant Eilis Lacey, native of Enniscorthy who migrated to New York. But 'Brooklyn' was considered too Mills and Boon for the Man Booker.

The latest work carries considerably more intellectual clout. The Mary of 'The Testament of Mary' is not an imagined character. She is the person revered by Christians all around the world as the Mother of God.

This is a book where we who have been raised in the West already know the plot. We are not standing by for any happy ending.

The trick is that, while religious teaching hails the crucifixion as a glorious beginning, Tóibín suggests that for the mother of the crucified it must have been a source of human grief. Presenting the Mary of so many prayers, the Mary of so many icons, the Mary of so much devotion as flesh and blood is the intellectual exercise with which the author hooks his reader.

The Eilis Lacey of 'Brooklyn' is portrayed as a weak person who took the right decisions for the wrong reasons. The Mary of 'Testament' is a strong woman who was never permitted the luxury of being allowed to take too many decisions in her own right as she was swept along by the tide of events in the vortex of history. In her testament, she looks back in old age on the momentous happenings.

The production of the stage version at the Walter Kerr prompted demonstrations on the New York sidewalks outside the theatre by religious fundamentalists denouncing 'Testament' as heresy. Perhaps they had not progressed past page 9, where the disciples of Jesus are dismissed by the jaundiced, bereaved widow as 'mis-fits'. Or maybe they disliked the way the writer blurs the edges of the resurrection so that it becomes more of a dream than a real event.

Tóibín even goes so far as to suggest that his downbeat heroine may have found some solace in the temples of heathen gods during her later years. Yet the author, brought up close to St. Aidan's Cathedral and educated at St. Peter's College, never allows his own apparent religious doubts to degenerate into crude disrespect for the Christian creed.

He may wonder how the water could possibly be turned to wine. He may suggest that Lazarus was none too pleased at having been raised from the dead. Long held certainties are challenged from start to finish. Challenged, but never rubbished.

The picture painted is of a first century world in which the Israel colonised by the Romans was as riddled with spies as East Germany in the closing days of the communist regime. It was an atmosphere which bred radical challengers such as Mary's son and his mis-fits, ready to court martyrdom for the cause of liberty.

Like most of us mortals, the Mary of 'Testament' is not at ease with the finer points of theology.

Though prayer is an inbuilt reflex, she is exasperated by the notion that her boy somehow saved mankind when he died on the cross, his bones broken, thorns embedded in his skull, his limbs pierced by savage long nails.

'A maze of riddles,' is her dismissive verdict on such reasoning. How many of us say our prayers but feel that we are being asked to swallow a maze of riddles?

'MAN FROM NOWHERE'

* The brief biography of Colm Tóibín carried in the Penguin version of 'The Testament of Mary' makes not mention of Enniscorthy or Wexford at all. It records simply that the author was born in Ireland in 1955.

There is also a reminder that he has twice before been nominated for the Booker Prize – for 'The Blackwater Lightship' and 'The Master'. Other novels, along with 'Brooklyn', his lucrative foray into romantic fiction, include 'The South', 'The Heather Blazing' and 'The Story of the Nght'.

When last checked, 'The Testament of Mary' was at number three in the Irish bestseller chart behind Gillian Flynn's 'Girl Gone Back' and the latest in the Jack Reacher thriller series, 'Never Go Back' by Lee Child.

Gorey Guardian

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